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Time to Rethink Iraq's Prison Policy By: James H. Warner
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 25, 2004


The revelations about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Graibh prison indicate the Army's problems that are far more widespread and serious than we have seen.  This observation is based on experience, not theory.  I served as a Marine officer flying F-4's in Vietnam.  I was also my squadron's avionics officer and ground defense platoon leader, with 110 enlisted men under my command.  I have had to make command decisions, including command decisions in combat.  I was also shot down over North Vietnam, captured, and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years.

The mistreatment we have seen at Abu Ghraib constitutes violations of Articles13 and 17 of the Geneva Convention.  The mere fact that it happened is evidence of a serious discipline problem. If such treatment was not forbidden, then the chain of command was lax.  If it was forbidden, then the troops did not believe that this order would be enforced, again indicative of a weak link in the chain of command.  The report of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba confirms this.  Apparently the entire 800th Military Police Brigade had severe discipline problems that were never corrected.  Instead, the former commander of the Brigade, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, told AP, "We were stretched thin and (headquarters) continued to assign us more missions far outside our capabilities."

As useful as the report by Gen. Taguba may be, the extent of the problem remains uncertain.  We need to know from each officer in the chain of command what orders were in place with respect to the treatment of prisoners and what policies were in place to assure compliance with those orders. There is disturbing evidence of a belief that coercion would be a valuable tool to produce useful intelligence.  This is foolish.

We are engaged in a war that former Director of the C.I.A., James Woolsey, has called World War IV.  It is a guerilla war, in which our primary objective is to persuade potential combatants that they will have a better future with us than with the guerillas.  In other words, we must win hearts and minds.  Having lost one round in this battle due to slack discipline and indifference throughout the chain of command, we must employ extraordinary discipline and uncommon diligence to get it back.

The first step in this effort is to discredit the idea that coercion will produce useful and reliable intelligence.  As a former POW, I can attest to this reality. In an interrogation that lasted from May 5 until September 2, 1969, I was repeatedly tortured for information that I did not have.  I had lied to the interrogator, in an effort to harm him with his superiors, and led the Communists to believe we could communicate between camps.  They wanted to know how we did this.  They spent untold resources trying to stop this communication, which did not exist.  In the course of the interrogation, the officer began asking me unrelated questions that I had answered before.  I gave him different answers this time.  It infuriated him.  He threatened to torture me.  I reminded him that he already was doing that.  He sputtered that he would force me to tell the truth.  I told him he could not know if I were telling the truth.

If you have a reliable source of information to corroborate what a prisoner tells you, you run the risk of discrediting that source, since the prisoner will probably lie to you.  If you have no way to check the prisoner's story, you cannot rely on it.  Either way, you get nothing from torture except the undying hatred of the prisoner. And, if the torture is discovered, you bring contention to your cause.  Mistreating prisoners is a losing proposition.




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